The Block Island Times

Take care when planting a shade tree

By Fred Nelson | May 19, 2012
Photo by: Kari Curtis An old shade tree on Water Street.

Years and years ago I can remember sitting under the shade of a maple tree at home on a warm summer afternoon. Is there anything more enjoyable than that? As I look around at the homes here on Block Island one doesn’t see many mature shade trees gracing the home landscape. To start with, just about every tree on the island was cut down to provide for farmland and probably home heating.
A tree takes almost a generation to grow to the point that it might provide enough shade to sit under — and perhaps beautify the surrounding countryside or add to the view with the ocean and boats sailing about in the background.
When planting a tree one has to envision the future size and appearance of the tree before selecting a location. One of our first acts when we built our home on Beach Avenue was to plant a purple leaf beech tree. We had one back at our home in Avon, Conn. that we had planted some 30 years prior and was approaching a significant size when we decided to move to the island. We chose to plant a new tree immediately upon landing on the island so that we and subsequent generations could enjoy a magnificent example of nature’s power to beautify the environment.
I don’t believe that there are many island properties that wouldn’t benefit from a shade tree or two somewhere on the property. However, due to our unique circumstances, care must be given to the location of any tree. Valuable scenic views must be protected both for the homeowner and nearby neighbors Another consideration is that most homes outside of the range of the sewer system have septic systems that should not have trees within at least 50 feet of them or a drainage field.
The nursery industry today produces trees in a varying assortment of containers from a “five gallon” pot to balled and burlapped trees that are dug from the ground during the dormant season and maintained in the nursery for delivery. These methods allow for selling and planting almost any time of the year.
The choice of species is quite diverse, particularly if you visit several nurseries. As an example, shade trees that mature from 25 to 50 feet or more offer a wide range of characteristics such as leaf size and color, fall color, bark, and habit of growth – pyramidal or rounded. You want to avoid any tree that is promoted as “fast growing.” Trees that grow rapidly inherently develop a weak structure that is very susceptible to storm damage. Further, inspect a tree to be sure it is free from any damage to the trunk or has any broken branches. It would be a good idea to inquire if the nursery has any sort of guarantee. If so, what conditions must you meet to ensure replacement if the tree fails to survive the first growing season.
I have some suggestions for trees that would tolerate our weather and soil conditions and, of course, provide shade They include Sugar Maple (fall color), Red Maple (fall color), Beech, (attractive bark and choice of leaf color), Lindens (attractive leaves), Horse-chestnut (flowers) , Sterwartia (flowers and attractive pealing bark), Sweetgum (excellent fall color), Zelkovia (vase shaped growth similar to American Elm) and Ginkgo (males only). Each of these trees has one or more characteristics that with essential tender loving care will add to the beauty and the shade of the home landscape.

We may see on a spring day in one place more beauty in a wood than in any garden.”
William Robinson
“The Garden Beautiful” (1907)

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